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RIP Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper by Douglas Kirkland

That looks like a lot of distance behind you.

Here’s a clip from 1967’s The Glory Stompers. That’s pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper playing a real good bad guy, Chino, head of the Black Souls. There are some good bikes and great riding in this one which has become one of my favorites of the B Biker movies.

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And so it begins…

I’ve always had a passing interest in old cars and bikes but  having not grown up around either, that’s almost where it stopped. Then one day I met this guy who had a couple of old Triumph motorcycles — one fairly stock and one far from it. His bikes had a vibe I couldn’t put a finger on. Everything about them was different from what I was used to seeing around. They were as far removed from the played out biker thing as he was. They weren’t these big hulking machines but trim, low and nimble. They were hot rods on two wheels.

One day I was standing over his shoulder, hanging out while he worked on one of them in a hot garage with a big British flag on the wall. We ran around and got a few small bits of hardware and after a little more sweat and labor , he was ready to fire it up. It took the better part of a day’s work but when I heard that bike rumble to life, I was hooked. Everything about it seemed perfect even if it wasn’t — the look, the smell and the sound — definitely the sound. I wanted one in the worst way but I knew it would be a while until I’d be in a position to make it happen.

Fast forward about seven years and I finally got a chance to get a bike. Only a 60s Triumph would do so I set out to find one. I found it in a classified ad (the actual paper kind, if you can believe it) posted by an older guy named Skip. The ad said it was a 1966 Triumph Trophy and that it was actually inspected and ready to ride. I was pretty psyched but kept my expectations reasonable because “ready to ride” means different things to different people. As it turned out it was titled as a 66 but had a 68 motor and a 69 front end. It made no difference to me. I wanted a rider, not a perfect restoration. I made plans to go check it out 140 miles from home with my wife and my friend Scott. It was my wife’s birthday but she had a good celebration the day before so she was pretty gracious about spending her day on a motorcycle hunting excursion. Believe me, you need a good woman like that or none at all if you’re going to get an old bike. Except for the fact that Scott rode a motorcycle, we had no plans for bringing it home — no truck, no trailer. Depending on what we found, he was either going to ride it out or we were going to drive out bitching.

Skip lived out in the middle of nowhere and on the seemingly endless ride there I played over and over in my head what this thing might look like for the price. By the time we got there I had resigned myself to the idea that it was going to be in bad shape and worse paint. I was excited at the potential though and was thinking of what I’d do with it. I had decided that, among other things, I was going to paint it black and silver.

When we pulled up I saw this bike gleaming in the sun — all glossy paint and polished aluminum. I assumed he had a couple of them and my bike was back in the garage somewhere but no, this was it — the bike we came to see — and in black and silver paint, no less.

The bike made the roughly  140 mile trip home with a stop at the first chance for an impromptu lesson. I took to it pretty quickly and having conquered the North Pocono Middle School parking lot, couldn’t wait to get on the road. Scott rode it the first 90 miles on the interstate and through a few bursts of hard rain. About 50 miles from home we stopped to eat and he asked if I was ready to ride it the rest of the way. Being new to motorcycles (and manual transmissions for that matter) I stalled at more than a few red lights. Still, I had an amazing 50 mile ride home through small towns and farmland despite the stalling and kickstarts. The closer I got to home, the harder the start –no matter though, I was almost there. Kick more, mutter under my breath a little more and I was off.

When we got back to town, we stopped at the bar where my friends were. We all gathered in the parking lot to check out my new find. I hopped on and gave it a good kick — and another, and another. Nothing. Of course because everyone was around, the bike wouldn’t start. As I kicked more, sweating and swearing and throwing my jacket off in what would become an all too familiar dance, they all went back to their drinks — except for the tinkerers among us. I  pushed the bike over to a patch of light in the dark lot and we fumbled around until it was time to give up and have a drink. Running or not, I had my bike and that was reason enough to celebrate…and of course my wife’s birthday.

That was a few years ago and just the beginning of my getting my bike on the road in fits and starts and, as one friend was quick to point out, it was more fits than starts at first. Just when I was ready to ride, that bike would decide it wasn’t moving. There were a lot of little things wrong with it. Much of it was electrical (another trait of the vintage British bike experience) but the whole bike was in need of some attention and it was a long time until I could go any distance and expect my bike to make it back.  A lot of work has gone into it and a lot of miles have come out of it with countless more still ahead. The work that goes into it make the ride that much better and if you wrestle with any machine long enough, you’ll get to know it pretty well. That bike can run for hundreds of miles at a time without hesitation from back roads to highways and New York City traffic and I plan to make it do just that — every chance I get. Of course I still keep my tools handy because even a good old bike is still an old bike and that’s half the fun. Anybody can own a motorcycle but there’s something gratifying about keeping an old machine on the road.

I’ve had some great rides, taken a few pictures, met some good and knowledgeable people and learned a lot about my bike along the way. I’m going to use this page to post up about some of it and whatever else seems to fit.

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